EDITORIAL: Local ethics cases should put all public officials on notice

In the past two weeks, three elected officials have made headlines as they face allegations of using their public office for personal gain.

It’s not good news, but it’s a good reminder about the fiduciary responsibility of those in public service to walk a tight line.

Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown was arrested and released on Sept. 23 after an Etowah County grand jury indicted him on one charge of using a public position for personal gain.

In a refreshingly transparent interview with The Star’s Mia Kortright, Brown explained that the violation has nothing to do with his role as coroner. He explained that he worked with Gadsden State’s EMS program until 2017, and in 2015, he was asked to help build a medical shelter for children in Texas. The violation appears to be the use of his public time on that private job. His attorney described it as a “technical violation” and said Brown will likely have to pay a fine.

On Wednesday, the state Ethics Commission ruled that City Councilman Jay Jenkins violated state ethics laws by casting a vote on a motion to move City Hall offices to the building that also serves as the headquarters for The Anniston Star. The temporary move was made necessary by a decision to build a new federal courthouse on the site of the former city hall.

Because Jenkins’ wife, Kim, works in the advertising department at The Star, the Ethics Commission voted to send the case to the local district attorney’s office.

Jenkins, who spoke openly with Star reporter Tim Lockette, said he didn’t seek an advance opinion from the Ethics Commission or the attorney general’s office before casting that vote earlier this year because he didn’t believe his vote was a violation of any ethics laws, noting that he nor his wife received any personal gain as a result of the city’s lease agreement with The Star.

Finally, Anniston Councilman Ben Little was scheduled to appear in court on Monday to offer a defense against charges that he cast a vote on a motion concerning his own property.

Little cast a no vote on a motion to declare as public nuisances a car on his personal property and two vans parked at the church that he pastors.

Such declarations give property owners a deadline to clear the nuisances or be fined, which is the “personal gain” element of the charges against Little.

On Thursday, Little and his attorney, Donald Stewart, declined comment about his case, but Little did comment about the ethics case against Jenkins.

As a vocal opponent of moving City Hall into the building that also houses The Anniston Star, Little was asked whether he filed the ethics complaint against Jenkins. He denied any involvement.

“I was critical of the move to The Star,” he said, “but I don’t want to see the city falter or The Star falter.”

Because the city’s lease agreement with The Star was passed on a 3-2 vote, what a guilty verdict in the Jenkins case would mean for the lease agreement is unclear.

This editorial is not an attempt to try any of these cases in the court of journalistic opinion. This is a reminder that because our elected officials have been placed in positions of public trust with decision-making responsibility over public funds, they are rightly held to a higher standard.

It’s not enough to avoid conflicts of interest; it’s necessary to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

We wouldn’t presume that any of these men are guilty of violating the state’s ethics laws. That’s for the courts to decide. But because several lawmakers across the state have been jailed in recent years for breaking the public’s trust, if other lawmakers are now on notice to be extremely careful and transparent about doing the public’s business, that’s a good thing.